Does media violence lead to real violence, and do video games impair academic performance?

Cross-posted from the University of Michigan Press blog.

"Twilight of the Books," an essay of mine published in The New Yorker on 24 December 2007, has been honored by inclusion in The Best of Technology Writing 2008, edited by Clive Thompson. When The New Yorker published my essay, I posted on my blog a series of mini-bibliographies, for anyone who wanted to dig into the research behind my article and try to answer for themselves whether television impaired intellect or whether literary was declining (here's an index/overview to all these research posts). A month or so ago, when the University of Michigan Press, the publisher of The Best of Technology Writing 2008, invited me to write about my essay for their blog, I was afraid I didn't have any more to say. Also, alas, I was under deadline. But I have a breather now, and looking over my year-old notes, I realize that there were a couple of categories of research that I never posted about at the time, because the topics didn't happen to make it into my article's final draft.

This research tried to answer the questions, Does exposure to violence on television or in video games lead to aggressive behavior in the real world? and Do video games impair academic performance? I still think the questions are very interesting, though I must now offer my summaries with the caveat that they are somewhat dated. In fact, I know of some very interesting research recently published on the first question, some of which you can read about on the blog On Fiction. I'm afraid I haven't kept up with video games as closely, but I'm sure there's more research on them, too. I hope there is, at any rate, because when I looked, I found very little. (By research, in all cases, I meant peer-reviewed studies based on experimental or survey data, and not popular treatments.)

A few words of introduction. The historian Lynn Hunt has suggested in her book Inventing Human Rights that in the eighteenth century, the novel helped to change Europe's mind about torture by encouraging people to imagine suffering from the inside. As if in corroboration, some of the research summarized below suggests that the brain responds less sympathetically when it is perceives violence through electronic media. As you'll see, however, there is some ambiguity in the evidence, and the field is highly contested.

1. Does exposure to violence on television or in video games lead to aggressive behavior in the real world?

  • In a summary of pre-2006 research, John P. Murray pointed to experiments in the 1960s by Albert Bandura, showing that children tend to mimic violent behavior they have just seen on screen and to a number of studies in the early 1970s that found correlations between watching violence and participating in aggressive behavior or showing an increased willingness to harm others. In 1982, a panel commissioned by the Surgeon General to survey existing research asserted that "violence on television does lead to aggressive behavior," and in 1992, a similar panel commissioned by the American Psychological Association reported "clear evidence that television violence can cause aggressive behavior." One mechanism may be through television's ability to convince people that the world is dangerous and cruel, in what is known as the "mean world syndrome." Murray claims that a twenty-two-year longitudinal study in Columbia County, New York, run by Huesmann and Eron, which was begun under the auspices of the Surgeon General's office, has linked boys' exposure to television violence at age eight to aggressive and antisocial behavior at age eighteen and to involvement in violent crime by age thirty; in fact, a 1972 study by Huesmann et al. did link boys' exposure at eight to aggressive behavior at eighteen, but the 1984 study cited by Murray linked violent crime at age thirty to aggressive behavior at age eight and said nothing about exposure to televised violence. In an unrelated study, when television was introduced in Canada, children's levels of aggression increased. [John P. Murray, "TV Violence: Research and Controversy," Children and Television: Fifty Years of Research, Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 2007. L. Rowell Huesmann, Leonard D. Eron, Monroe M. Lefkowitz, and Leopold O. Walder, "Stability of Aggression Over Time and Generations," Developmental Psychology 1984. For a synopsis of Huesmann's 1972 study, see Steven J. Kirsh, Children, Adolescents, and Media Violence: A Critical Look at the Research, Sage Publications, 2006, p. 208.]
  • A longitudinal study of 450 Chicago-area children was begun in 1977 when the children were between six and eight years old, and continued in 1992-1995, when they were between twenty-one and twenty-three years old. As children, the subjects were asked about their favorite television programs, whether they identified with the characters, and how true-to-life they thought the shows were. Fifteen years later, it emerged that watching violent shows, identifying with aggressive characters of the same sex, and believing that the shows were realistic correlated with adult aggression, including physical aggression. The effect was present even after controlling for such factors as initial childhood aggression, intellectual capacity, socioeconomic status, and parents' level of emotional support. (Note that in the opinion of the researchers, the Six Million Dollar Man was considered a "very violent" show, and that the heroine of the Bionic Woman was considered an aggressive character.) [L. Rowell Huesmann, Jessica Moise-Titus, Cheryl-Lynn Podolski, and Leonard D. Eron, "Longitudinal Relations between Children's Exposure to TV Violence and Their Aggressive and Violent Behavior in Young Adulthood, 1977-1992," Developmental Psychology, 2003. Cf. Kirsh , p. 209.]
  • In a 2006 textbook about the relation between media violence and aggressive behavior, author Steven J. Kirsh notes that a 1994 meta-analysis of the link between television violence and aggression estimated the size of the effect to be r = .31. "The effect sizes for media violence and aggression are stronger than the effect sizes for condom use and sexually transmitted HIV, passive smoking and lung cancer at work, exposure to lead and IQ scores in children, nicotine patch and smoking cessation, and calcium intake and bone mass," Kirsh wrote. A 2004 meta-analysis found that the correlation between video game violence and aggressive behavior was r = .26. To put the effect sizes in perspective, Kirsh notes that they are greater than the link between testosterone levels and aggression, but weaker than the link between having antisocial peers and delinquency. In surveying the research on video games, Kirsh makes the point that there is little research as yet, and that most of it was done in what he calls the "Atari age," when the games were fairly innocuous; almost no one has experimentally tested the effects on children and teens of the new-generation, highly realistic and gory first-person shooter games. [Steven J. Kirsh, Children, Adolescents, and Media Violence: A Critical Look at the Research, Sage Publications, 2006.]
  • In a 2007 summary of research, three scientists asserted that there was "unequivocal evidence that media violence increases the likelihood of aggressive and violent behavior in both immediate and long-term contexts," and noted that the link between television violence and aggression had been proved by studies in both the laboratory and the field, and by both cross-sectional and longitudinal studies. Video games were not as well documented, but in the opinion of the scientists, the preliminary evidence suggested that their effect would be similar. Playing violent video games has been shown to increase physiological arousal. Measurements of skin conductance and heart rate show that people have less of an aversion to images of real violence, if they have previously been exposed to violent television or violent video games. Measurements of event-related brain potentials (ERPs) and functional magnetic resonance imaging (fRMI) allow researchers to look with new precision at the magnitude of brain processes that occur at particular times and at the activation of specific regions of the brain. A 2006 study by Bartholow et al., for example, showed that exposure to violent video games reduces aversion to scenes of real violence, as measured by a blip of voltage that typically occurs 300 milliseconds after sight of a gory image. A 2006 study by Murray et al. (see below) showed that violent scenes of television activated parts of the brain associated with emotion, memory, and motor activity. Yet another 2006 study, by Weber et al., showed that while players were engaged in violence during a video game, a brain region associated with emotional processing was suppressed, and one associated with cognitive processing was aroused, perhaps in order to reduce empathy and thereby improve game performance. In a 2005 study by Matthews et al., chronic adolescent players of violent video games scored the same as adolescents with disruptive behavior disorders on a test designed to assess a brain region responsible for inhibition and error correction. Attempting to explain the results of the various studies under review, the authors write: "Initial results suggest that, although video-game players are aware that they are engaging in fictitious actions, preconscious neural mechanisms might not differentiate fantasy from reality." [Nicholas L. Carnagey, Craig A. Anderson, and Bruce D. Bartholow, "Media Violence and Social Neuroscience," Currents Directions in Psychological Science, 2007.]
  • While a functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) device monitored their brain activity, eight children watched a video montage that included boxing scenes from Rocky IV and part of a National Geographic animal program for children, among other clips. The violent scenes activated many brain regions that the nonviolent scenes did not, mostly in the right hemisphere. These regions have been associated by other researchers with emotion, attention and arousal, detection of threat, episodic memory, and fight or flight response. The authors of the study speculate that "though the child may not be aware of the threat posed by TV violence at a conscious level . . . a more primitive system within his or her brain (amygdala, pulvinar) may not discriminate between real violence and entertainment fictional violence." In the activation of regions associated with long-term memory, the researchers saw a suggestion that the television violence might have long-term effects on the viewer. [John P. Murray, etal. "Children's Brain Activations While Viewing Televised Violence Revealed by fMRI," Media Psychology, 2006.]
  • In a 2005 study, 213 video-game novices with an average age of twenty-eight were divided into two groups, and one group spent a month playing an average of 56 hours of a violent multi-player fantasy role-playing video game. Participants completed questionnaires to assess their aggression-related beliefs before and after the test month, and were asked before and after whether they had argued with a friend and whether they had argued with a romantic partner. The data showed no significant correlation between hours of game play and the measures of aggression, once the results were controlled for age, gender, and pre-test aggression scores. The authors note that there might be an effect too small for their study to detect, and that adults might be less sensitive to the exposure than children or adolescents. [Dmitri Williams and Marko Skoric, "Internet Fantasy Violence: A Test of Aggression in an Online Game," Communication Monographs, June 2005. Andrea Lynn, "No Strong Link Seen Between Violent Video Games and Aggression," News Bureau, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, 9 August 2005.]
  • A 2007 book presented three studies of video-game violence's effect on school-age children. In the first study, 161 nine- to twelve-year-olds and 354 college students were asked to play one of several video games—either a nonviolent game, a violent game with a happy and cartoonish presentation, or a violent game with a gory presentation—and then to play a second game, during which they were told they could punish other player with blasts of noise (the blasts were not, in fact, delivered). Those who played violent games, whether cartoonish or gory, were more likely to administer punishments during the second game; playing violent games at home also raised the likelihood of punishing others. Children and college students behaved similarly. In the second study, 189 high school students were given questionnaires designed to assess their media usage and personality. The more often the students reported playing violent video games, the more likely they were to have hostile personalities, to believe that violence was normal, and to behave aggressively, and the less likely they were to feel forgiving toward others. The correlation between game playing and violent behavior held even when the researchers controlled for gender and aggressive beliefs and attitudes. The more time that students spent in front of screens (whether televisions or video games), the lower their grades. In the third study, 430 elementary school children were surveyed twice, at a five-month interval, about their exposure to violent media, beliefs about the world, and whether they had been in fights. Students were asked to rate one another's sociability and aggressiveness, and teachers were asked to comment on these traits and on academic performance. In just five months, children who played more video games darkened in their outlook on the world, and peers and teachers noticed that they became more aggressive and less amiable. The effect was independent of gender and of the children's level of aggression at the first measurement. Screen time impaired the academic performance of these students, too; they only became more aggressive, however, when the content they saw during the screen time was violent. [Craig A. Anderson, Douglas A. Gentile, and Katherine E. Buckley, Violent Video Game Effects on Children and Adolescents: Theory, Research, and Public Policy, Oxford University Press, 2007.]

2. Do video games impair academic performance?

  • In a 2004 survey of 2,032 school-age children, there were statistically significant differences in print and video-game use between students earning As and Bs and those earning Cs and below. On average, A-B students had read for pleasure 46 minutes and played video games for 48 minutes the previous day; C-and-below students had read for pleasure 29 minutes and played video games for 1 hour 9 minutes. Television watching seemed constant between the groups. [Donald F. Roberts, Ulla G. Foehr, and Victoria Rideout, Generation M: Media in the Lives of 8-18 Year-Olds, The Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation, March 2005, page 47.]
  • A 2007 book presented results of a study in which 189 high school students were given questionnaires designed to assess their media usage and personality. The more time that students spent in front of screens (whether televisions or video games), the lower their grades. In a related and similar study, 430 elementary school children were surveyed twice, at a five-month interval, and screen time impaired the academic performance of these students, too. [Craig A. Anderson, Douglas A. Gentile, and Katherine E. Buckley, Violent Video Game Effects on Children and Adolescents: Theory, Research, and Public Policy, Oxford University Press, 2007.]

UPDATE (27 Feb. 2009): For ease in navigating, here's a list of all the blog posts I wrote to supplement my New Yorker article "Twilight of the Books":

Notebook: "Twilight of the Books" (overview)
Are Americans Reading Less?
Are Americans Spending Less on Reading?
Is Literacy Declining?
Does Television Impair Intellect?
Does Internet Use Compromise Reading Time?
Is Reading Online Worse Than Reading Print?
I also later talked about the article on WNYC's Brian Lehrer Show and on KUER's Radio West.
And, as a bonus round: Does media violence lead to real violence, and do video games impair academic performance?

“Twilight of the Books” reprinted

Best of Technology Writing 2008

My essay “Twilight of the Books,” about how a decline in reading might be affecting the culture, has just been reprinted in The Best of Technology Writing 2008, edited by Clive Thompson, available from the University of Michigan Press and Amazon, among others. Also featuring the brilliant Emily Nussbaum, John Seabrook, Jeffrey Rosen, Cass Sunstein, and more.

My essay was originally published in the 24 December 2007 issue of The New Yorker, and at the time I put up a multi-part annotated bibliography on this blog, organized by topic:

Notebook: “Twilight of the Books”

Are Americans Reading Less?

Are Americans Spending Less on Reading?

Is Literacy Declining?

Does Television Impair Intellect?

Does Internet Use Compromise Reading Time?

Is Reading Online Worse Than Reading Print?

I also later talked about the article on WNYC’s Brian Lehrer Show and on KUER’s Radio West.

The End-of-the-Book Reading List

Not really, of course. I believe paper-based books, also known as codices, are here to stay, even if the advent of foldability does threaten to render electronic reading devices somewhat cuter than heretofore.

Nonetheless, over the last few months, in intermittent fits of sentimentality, I have accumulated a wee library of printed materials that seem to be mementoes or comments on the decline of certain aspects of book culture.

1. To celebrate all things analog, from transistor radios to lighthouses, Simon Roche of the Irish-Danish design firm Field has produced a magazine titled The Radio Post, which I learned about from my boyfriend, Peter Terzian, who wrote about it for Print magazine recently. The Radio Post is an extraordinarily beautiful thing, because it’s in form a folded broadsheet, printed in silver ink on black paper. Fedrigoni’s Savile Row Tweed Paper, to be exact. On one side, poster-size, is a photograph of Simon’s father at the horse races, years ago. On the other are small articles and images, including photos of a low-tech recording studio used by the White Stripes and an extract from Seamus Heaney’s Nobel acceptance speech. The best thing is, it’s free to the first thousand comers, provided you send a non-electronic letter or postcard asking for it. Write to The Radio Post, Republikken Building, Vesterbrogade 24b -2.Sal, 1620 Copenhagen V, Denmark. It arrives in a stamped and numbered envelope.

Jason Shiga, Bookhunter

2. But maybe nostalgia is not your thing. Maybe, in the defense of book culture, you prefer . . . gunshots and car chases? In that case, order Jason Shiga’s Bookhunter from Sparkplug Comics for $15. You can also read it online, but that would sort of defeat the point of defending book culture, wouldn’t it. The premise is that it’s 1973, and an 1838 Bible at the Oakland Public Library has been swapped with a high-quality simulacrum. A crack team of special agents from the Federal Library Police are called in to investigate. In the name of library science, the agents are of course licensed to kill. My favorite moment comes during a chase scene, when an agent crawls out of the cab of a bookmobile while it’s in motion, à la Keanu Reeves in Speed or Buster Keaton in The General, in order to reach a reverse telephone directory in the library part of the vehicle. Hands-down shoe-in for the most creative use of a card catalog in motion pictures.

Robert Frank, Zero Mostel Reads a Book

3. If you don’t like your books about books to be sullied by actual words, there’s Zero Mostel reads a book, a photo pamphlet by Robert Frank, originally issued by the New York Times as a giveaway in 1963 and now reissued by Steidl for $27.50. Mostel seems to be performing Harold Bloom avant la lettre, or a more theatrical version of Bloom, if that’s possible—threatening to punch one volume, savoring another with a magnifying glass and a cigarette, and goggling at what must be a true-crime tale with bug-eyed glee.

4. On the studious end of the spectrum, meanwhile, Anthony Grafton has expanded his November 2007 New Yorker article on the future of reading into a small book, Codex in Crisis ($30). It is published, rather lavishly, by the Crumpled Press, in a limited edition of 250, with an engraved cover and a fold-out color reproduction of Felice Giani’s The Burning of the Library at Alexandria. The opulence risks making the book itself sound precious, but it isn’t. Given free rein, Grafton is able to go into more detail about such matters as his first-hand experience of the financial constraints of running a scholarly journal in the internet age; the frequency with which Google Books’ character-recognition software renders the Latin word “qualitas” as “qnalitas”; and the ineffable something that is added to scholarship when a researcher shares a physical workspace with sleepy vicars who visit the Bodleian in their bedroom slippers.

5. I’ve recommended the photographer Moyra Davey’s books of images and essays about books before, and Long Life Cool White ($24.95) and The Problem of Reading ($12) are still highly recommended. (By the way, Davey’s piece Bloom is on display at the Metropolitan Museum of Art until 18 October 2008 in the exhibit “Photography on Photography: Reflections on the Medium since 1960.”)

Ben Blackwood, Donald Oresman reading his exhibition catalog

6. Finally, and just as aesthetically, the Spartanburg Art Museum of Spartanburg, South Carolina, is selling the catalog to its exhibit People Reading, depictions of readers in paint and ink collected by Donald and Patricia Oresman. The Oresmans, a Manhattan couple with a 1,250-square-foot private library with 23-foot ceilings, own more than two thousand such images, which have been featured in The Paris Review and The New Yorker. They have loaned sixty to the Spartanburg Art Museum, and while they’re all visible online, the pictures are bigger and better in print, and the catalog only costs $5 (plus $5 shipping).

How Is the Internet Changing Literary Style?

[On 10 June 2008, the journal n+1 sponsored a debate under the title “The Internet: We All Live There Now,” at the Kitchen. The panelists were Mark Greif, Moe Tkacik, Ben Kunkel, and me; Keith Gessen was the moderator. Here’s a transcript of my talk.]

Good evening. In my talk tonight, I would like to raise the question, How is the internet changing literary style? The question has at least two aspects. First, Which traits of style change when writing goes online? Second, What are the forces that cause these changes to come about? There is a third aspect, a moral one, which I will try to defer answering until the end of my talk but which shadows the first two, namely, Are these changes an improvement?

There are so many different styles of writing online that my description can’t help but be impressionistic and subjective. Precisely because of that abundance and variety, however, there may be no other way to proceed, so, with your indulgence, here goes.

There is relatively little fiction and poetry online, by which I mean, fiction and poetry that is native to that environment, written with the intention of being read there. This is puzzling. Whatever the sickliness of poetry as a genre, fiction is one of the most robust and profitable forms of printed literature. An inkling of an answer occurred to me not long ago while I was reading the opening pages of Philip Larkin’s novel Jill. In the book’s first scene, Larkin describes an awkward boy taking the train to college for the first time. The boy’s mother has packed him sandwiches, but he’s embarrassed to eat before strangers, so he secretly crams one down his throat in the train restroom and flushes the rest down the toilet, only to discover, when he returns to his seat, that his fellow passengers have all taken out their lunches.

The précis I’ve just given compresses the action of several pages into several sentences, and thereby makes the prose sound more eventful than it is. What struck me when I read it was how wonderfully calm it is. It makes no effort to seize the reader’s attention. It assumes, rather, that the reader has taken the risk of extending his attention unsolicited, almost as a gift, which the novelist will do his best to repay by the quiet and steady work of elaborating a world and the way that one character sees it.

The internet is inhospitable to that kind of quietness. If your browser were to happen on such a page, your eyes would likely go blank with impatience. Who is this guy? Why aren’t there any links? And, more damningly, Is anyone else reading this? A text on the internet rarely takes for granted your decision to read it or to continue reading it. There is often, instead, a jazzy, hectoring tone. At home my boyfriend and I use a certain physical gesture as shorthand to describe it. To make it, extend your index fingers and your thumbs so that your hands resemble toy pistols. Then waggle them before you, like a dude in a cheesy Western, while you wink, dip your knees, and lopsidedly drawl, “Heyyy.” The internet is always saying, “Heyyy.” It is always welcoming you to the party; it is always patting you on the back to congratulate you for showing up. It says, You know me, in a collusive tone of voice, and Wanna hear something funny? and Didja see who else is here? This tone is not absent from print; in fact, no page of New York magazine is without it. Certain decorative effects in language may be compatible with it, but it seems to be toxic to imagination.

What styles do thrive on the internet? I’ve kept a blog for several years, and although its readership is tiny, I of course notice when the hits rise and fall. I seem to get more readers when I post frequently, when I write about people or topics in the headlines, when I have been drawn into a conflict, and when I write something that speaks to a self-image that a group of people share. Over the years I’ve gradually revealed more personal details; I still reveal very little, comparatively, but enough to entitle me to say that I feel a tug there, too. Perhaps the tugs that I feel are a better data source, come to think of it, than my blog’s underemployed hit counter. If I were to interpret those tugs, I would say that writing on the internet tends to be more popular when it satisfies the reader’s wish to be connected—the wish not to miss out. The writer, too, may have such a wish. I admit that I love it when another blog links to mine; there is great consolation in the feeling of having a posse. And of course many readers online are also writers there. Perhaps these feelings of “groupiness” explain a few more traits of internet style. There is a greater tolerance online for sloppy and inexact writing—not merely for typos but for a generalized kludginess of thought, especially the errors that the usage stickler H. W. Fowler named “haziness,” “swapping horses,” and “unequal yokefellows,” which may all be loosely described as changing your mind about the grammatical structure of a sentence halfway through writing it—and such tolerance is to be expected if people are reading primarily for the sake of a feeling of belonging. One also finds more flattery and more insults online, another hint that online readers are more interested in affiliation and in the feelings associated with including and excluding other people.

This willingness in readers to overlook form raises a question as to whether online writing entertains, in the traditional sense of the word. I am not sure that it does. Reading online does not seem to me to be a pleasure in itself but a response to irritation. That is, it is not like eating an ice cream cone; it is like scratching an itch. I am only reporting on my own feelings here, of course, but while I am doing so, let me report a further kink in them. Between us, my boyfriend and I subscribe to more than a dozen magazines, and if I pick one up, I know instantly that I am goofing off. Online reading, however, fails to set off my leisure detection system. Part of the failure may be perceptual—online reading takes place while I’m sitting in front of my laptop, immobilized, as I am when working. But I think, too, that online writing may, even in its supposedly silly moments, be covertly work-like: there is a fair amount of tedium in its unedited prose. Many of the jokes and references are only comprehensible to regular visitors. No one, my hit counter tells me, reads blogs on the weekend. And reading online prose is not refreshing. An action movie leaves the viewer juiced; a novel may leave the reader wistful. But reading blogs, in my experience, leaves me more addled and nervous than when I began. This work-like character makes the internet particularly corrosive , by the way, to the productivity of those who work at home, such as writers. Through web browsing, the freelancer communes with the procrastinating office drone—at his peril, because the freelancer receives no weekly paycheck.

By this point, you will have gathered from my references to feelings and to social context that the definition of literary style that I’m working with is broad. I suppose I define it as the way a writer expresses himself in words, and I would defend the breadth of my definition by arguing that whenever a writer expresses himself he also chooses how he will present himself—even if he chooses to keep his personal self out of view, insofar as that is possible. A writer is someone who has turned his self-presentation in language into an art or a profession, just as an actor has his self-presentation in person. Feelings and social context—or rather, linguistic effects that suggest feelings and social context—may be as crucial to a writer as metaphor and diction.

In defining style this way, I am borrowing from the sociologist Erving Goffman’s 1959 book The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life. It was Goffman’s insight that in their structure, many daily encounters are a milder version of the one that we are acting out here tonight. There are usually two teams—tonight, for instance, it’s the panelists up here vs. the audience out there. Each team performs for the other. Each side tries to define the situation that they find themselves in, to their advantage by conveying an impression. Up here, we’re trying to seem thoughtful but not too pompous; out there, you’re trying to seem interested but not naïve. You may also, by the way, be performing for one another, as may we. Our tools up here include our words, our facial expressions, and our clothes, and every sign we give, or inadvertently give off, has, according to Goffman, “a promissory character.” In other words, while we speak, you’re going to be trying to decide whether we live up to the promise our words and manner imply. If we’re unlucky or unskillful, you may decide we’re pretending to be something we’re not. Thankfully, we’re not always onstage, laboring under the stress of maintaining what Goffman calls our “front.” Last night, some of my fellow panelists and I met for a private dinner, to strategize in a place where you wouldn’t be able to hear us. At that dinner, I could have safely listed all the many books about the internet I haven’t read; alerted to my deficiencies, my comrades would then know to steer questions about them away from me tonight, without any need for me to give a signal and without you in the audience being any the wiser. Goffman calls such spaces “back regions,” or, more colloquially, “backstage areas.”

Recourse to a backstage area is only one of a number of techniques by means of which performers may make the task of self-presentation more manageable. Another is “audience segregation.” Audience segregation is why professors say they won’t go on Facebook: they work hard to project a sage and stolid persona to their students, and the effort would be undermined if their students were to see them zombie-biting the assistant dean. Another is what Goffman calls “mystification,” which is in essence a limitation on contact. The professor is too busy to talk to you; come to his office hours if you must. Still another is “dramaturgical circumspection,” which involves managing the kind of audience you have and how much they know. If the professor plans to crib all his lectures next semester from M. H. Abrams’s The Mirror and the Lamp, perhaps he’ll choose to leave that book off the syllabus, and suggest to better-read students that the class will be too easy for them. Finally, performers are protected from a public loss of face by the audience’s tact, that is, by the audience’s willingness to overlook lapses in order to avoid a scene. This may be another reason professor don’t join Facebook: They know their students let their guard down there, and for the students’ sake they’d rather not see it.

All of these techniques are rendered more difficult, if not impossible, by the Internet, as the example of Facebook suggests. Some professors, after all, do join. It’s impossible to keep the members of the right-wing discussion group Free Republic dot-com from reading the posts at My Barack Obama dot-com, and vice versa. The internet’s killer app, as the onetime internet mogul Michael Wolff once said, is eavesdropping. It’s impossible to screen one’s audience, and almost impossible to release information about oneself selectively. Mystification, too, is often punctured online; it’s difficult to prevent people from expecting a prompt reply to an email. As for tact, it isn’t rarer on the internet, but in real life, tact is efficacious largely because audience members police one another to see that it’s maintained. Hecklers are hissed down. Thanks to anonymity, the odds of being punished for failing to use tact online are low to nonexistent, and so whenever an opportunity for discrediting a performer arises, someone will come along cheap enough to take it. Just the other day, for example, I posted on my blog a recipe for rice and beans that I cooked when I was in graduate school, as part of an inter-blog conversation about such recipes, only to have “” declare, “Sorry, but this recipe doesn’t even meet the basic requirements of a grad school recipe.”

Against a more scurrilous attack, my friend Scott McLemee once invoked Goffman to describe his blog Quick Study as his “backstage area.” Scott asserted that in such a setting it was tactless to be so harsh. I agree that such harshness was and is tactless, but I disagree with Scott about his application of Goffman. I think that in fact there are no backstage areas online. On the internet, everything is a front, yet the stress and strain of maintaining a constant and universal front is so great that many performers on the internet make a show of abandoning the standards conventionally associated with a front. On the internet, the audience is with you too often, and sees you from too many angles, for you to pull any wool over their eyes, so the safest way to present yourself is by underselling. No intimacy comes with this deshabille, however. The environment remains dangerous. One skips through no-man’s-land in one’s pyjamas, as it were. If we live on the internet, as Keith suggested by the title he chose for tonight’s event, then we keep ourselves as slovenly there as if we were backstage, yet feel as isolated and as trapped within our shells as if we were in front of the footlights.

Here, I think, we reach the question of whether these changes in style constitute an improvement. In purely formal terms, I think they don’t. Writing is not refined by a conscious or half-conscious effort to look sloppy. The moral aspect is more complicated. Goffman writes that when a performer is publicly discredited, “the members of the audience may discover a fundamental democracy that is usually well hidden.” That sounds like a boon, but it may be worth keeping in mind that the most powerful CEOs and politicians in America not only do not blog, they do not even use email. There is accordingly a limit to the internet’s revolutionary potential. Also, it is possible we might come to regret that the front of an institution like the New York Times has been riddled by the internet’s fire. According to Goffman, a team of performers maintains boundaries between itself and its audience so that its members may have the flexibility to share information among themselves without giving it away to the audience. A paranoid or a utopian may believe the New York Times doesn’t need to keep secrets from its readers, but most people think it’s possible to report responsibly using anonymous sources, and as Goffman tried to demonstrate, every public presentation of self requires a touch of razzle-dazzle to succeed. Even the Gray Lady may occasionally need a spot of rouge.

To speak still more abstractly: I’m not sure I believe in leveling for its own sake, and I don’t want to live in a society where I may not shut the door. “Estrangement shows itself precisely in the elimination of distance between people,” Theodor Adorno wrote in Minima Moralia.

For only as long as they abstain from importuning one another with giving and taking, discussion and implementation, control and function, is there space enough between them for the delicate connecting filigrees of external forms in which alone the internal can crystallize.

It may be that communication is compromised when interactions are completely public, that grabbing attention often substitutes for deserving it, and that solitude is more refreshing than a company in which trust and tenderness are habitually threatened. As the etiquette books explain, an informal style signals warmth to friends and family, but it’s rude to use it with strangers.

Slow learner

Heliodorus, An Ethiopian Tale

I was not a terribly casual young person. When I was about twenty-two, I saw in a Cambridge bookstore an edition of Collected Ancient Greek Novels. It seemed they were the earliest novels ever written. Since I wanted to write novels myself someday, I felt that I ought to purchase and read it. Unfortunately, the earliest novels ever written were not the best, by a long shot. They were meandering, melodramatic, and improbable. I don’t remember how many of the nine novels in the volume I read, because I don’t remember a word of any of them today. But there is incontrovertible evidence that I did read at least one, “An Ethiopian Story” by Heliodorus. I diagrammed it.

Ah, the earnestness of youth! I was just out of college, and I hadn’t yet determined on grad school, but I heard the call of note-taking, even though no one was ever going to quiz me. Until this post, I’m pretty sure that the fact of my having read Heliodorus’ “Ethopian Story” was a dark secret safely kept; it’s not a title that comes up a lot in Brooklyn cocktail-party conversation.

Pynchon, Gravity's Rainbow, diagram 1

But I should level with you. I’m just warming up the audience, here. This post isn’t really about Heliodorus at all. It’s really about Thomas Pynchon, and the five-page diagram, along the same lines but on a much more grandiose scale, that I drew while reading Gravity’s Rainbow. I think I drew the Pynchon diagrams a year or two before the Heliodorus one; as you will see if you dare to click, the Pynchon diagrams are a bit more passionate, if not outright mad. Today there are reader’s companions to Gravity’s Rainbow, but there weren’t at the time. I’m not sure the diagrams will be useful to any other readers, but they were useful to me back then, partly as a memory aid, but mostly in the way of channelling and venting what felt like a possession. If you haven’t read Gravity’s Rainbow, and you wish you knew the human intermediaries that connect “Grigori (octopus)” to “Milton Gloaming (statistician)”; or if you happen to be in the midst of reading the novel, and it would help to be reminded that “Geli Tripping (balalaika, witch)” is in the harem of “Vaslav Tchitcherine”; or if you just want to admire the way all the lines converge on Slothrop—then by all means knock yourself out.

Pynchon, Gravity's Rainbow, diagram 2 Pynchon, Gravity's Rainbow, diagram 3

Pynchon, Gravity's Rainbow, diagram 4 Pynchon, Gravity's Rainbow, diagram 5